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In Pakistan, Those Who Survive Drone Attacks May Well 'Die Slowly' in Refugee Camps

Many refugees living in tent encampments or abandoned buildings may soon start dying from preventable disease.
 
 
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In early June, 2009, I was in the Shah Mansoor displaced persons camp in Pakistan, listening to one resident detail the carnage which had spurred his and his family’s flight there a mere 15 days earlier. Their city, Mingora, had come under massive aerial bombardment. He recalled harried efforts to bury corpses found on the roadside even as he and his neighbors tried to organize their families to flee the area.

"They were killing us in that way, there," my friend said. Then, gesturing to the rows of tents stretching as far as the eye could see, he added, "Now, in this way, here."

The people in the tent encampment suffered very harsh conditions. They were sleeping on the ground without mats, they lacked water for bathing, the tents were unbearably hot, and they had no idea whether their homes and shops in Mingora were still standing. But, the suffering they faced had only just begun.

 

UN humanitarian envoy Abdul Aziz Arrukban warned on June 22nd that the millions of Pakistanis displaced during the military’s offensive against the Swat Valley would "die slowly" unless the international community started taking notice of the "unprecedented" scope of the crisis (Jason Ditz, Anti-War.com)

UN agencies and NGOs such as Islamic Relief and Relief International report that many of the persons now living in tent encampments, or squatting in abandoned buildings, or crowded into schools designated as refugee centers, may soon start dying from preventable disease.

Health teams note increasingly frequent cases of diarrhea, scabies and malaria, all deadly in these circumstances, especially for young children. With so many people living so close to each other, these diseases are spreading fast.

Relief groups are concerned that as the monsoon season approaches, in July, these problems will get considerably worse. Monsoons bring regional floods and cause escalating rates of malaria and waterborne diseases. The impact, this year, is expected to be much more severe because so many people are living in crowded and unsanitary conditions.

Pakistan's already rundown health care system, officials report, is now near collapse. Hospitals in northern Pakistan have been overwhelmed, with exhausted doctors, depleted medicine supplies and avalanches of red tape blocking money and medicine for the crisis.

Writing for the Associated Press on June 7th, Kathy Gannon described the men’s ward in the Mardan District Hospital: "30 steel beds lie crammed together, with two-inch mattresses and no pillows. Pools of urine spread on the floor, and fresh blood stains the ripped bedding ... The one bathroom for 30 patients stinks of urine and feces. The toilets are overflowing, the door to one cement cubicle is falling off and a two-inch river of urine covers the cement floor. In one corner, garbage is piled high."

The annual budget for health care in Pakistan, this year, is less than $150 million, while Pakistan's defense budget last year came to $3.45 billion, and is expected to reach $3.65 billion next year.

People in Shah Mansoor worry that the international community as well as their own government won’t notice the health care crisis they face. But villagers yet to flee their homes in Waziristan agonize under constant military scrutiny from lethally-armed U.S. surveillance drones.

A villager who survived a drone attack in North Waziristan explained that even the children, at play, were acutely conscious of drones flying overhead. After a drone attack, survivors trying to bring injured victims to a hospital were dumbfounded when a driver stopped, learned of their plight and then sped away. Then it dawned on them that the driver was afraid the drone would still be prowling overhead and that he might be targeted for associating with victims of the attack.